Attacking books has been an American tradition since 1650, when Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony seized William Pynchon’s “The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption,” labeling it blasphemous for saying obedience, and not suffering, led to atonement. In 1885, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was banned for “coarse language” (and much later for the use of the n-word). “On the Origin of Species,” probably the most influential book ever banned, was censored in 1895 for violating Christian beliefs. From 2000-2009, the Harry Potter books were the most challenged, accused of promoting the occult and Satanism. From 2010-2019, it was Sherman Alexi’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” A key objection: The main character, Junior, masturbates.
Now we are seeing a new wave of book bans, marked by an unprecedented number of challenges and intense polarization. Its focus: narrowing the universe of information in schools and public libraries that might challenge young people on race and gender — the same issues at the center of the political and cultural wars ripping through the country. Glenn Youngkin (R), for instance, won the governorship of Virginia in November after highlighting concerns about the teaching of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”; some parents held that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel portrayed the horrors of slavery with overly explicit depictions of sex, violence and bestiality.
“This is certainly a reflection of what is going on right now in this country,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which monitors book bans and issues annual lists of the most challenged. “There is dispute and debate over what kind of government and society we want to be. Book bannings are part of that.”
Advocacy groups are working to nationalize book challenges, this time with the help of conservative TV and talk shows, that for the past few decades have been mostly local events. Some state legislators are threatening punitive action against anyone in schools or libraries who spreads material deemed obscene or harmful to minors. And now students, parents, librarians and school boards are fighting back, calling the push censorship.
The current book banning crusade has its roots in the social justice movement that arose after the 2020 murder by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Caldwell-Stone said. The “rising awareness of racism in society” sparked pushback. President Donald Trump’s October 2020 executive order banning diversity training in federally funded agencies — to stop, he said, “efforts to indoctrinate government employees with divisive and harmful sex- and race-based ideologies” — ignited assaults on the teaching of systemic racism in U.S. history and society, as well as portrayals of the lives of members of the LGBTQ community.
“We see these efforts to narrow what is available to young people in an effect to preserve a status quo that valorizes the Founding Fathers and that is theoretically colorblind, but that seems not to include the actual voices of the people who have been impacted by racism or discrimination in our society,” Caldwell-Stone said.
George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir-manifesto that follows the author’s path as a queer Black man in New Jersey and Virginia, is one of the many LGBTQ books being challenged in school districts and libraries, this one in more than a dozen states, for sexually explicit material. The fight over teaching systemic racism has seen bans of tomes such as Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” as well as a version for young people co-authored with Jason Reynolds. The complaints include Kendi’s public statements about racism and accusations that the book does not discuss racism against all people.
The books that are often the first to come off bookshelves after challenges are those involving sexual material and gender issues. Those calling for their removal say explicit sexual material is inappropriate for children and can leave them confused about their gender.
At an Oct. 21 school board meeting in Pennsylvania’s North Penn School District, for example, Vicki Flannery, a member of the conservative advocacy group Moms for Liberty, read a scene from Johnson’s book, which includes two detailed sex scenes and a rape. She said to the school board members: “Do any of you — any of you — find this book that depicts a sexual encounter and rape acceptable for any minor regardless of gender or sexual orientation? Because I do not find this at all acceptable. A child is a child and if you do you belong on a national registry and not a school board.”
Authors and educators say it is important for young people to have books that introduce them to sexual, gender and racial issues that many confront daily. “Books and media are essential portals that enable kids to learn about people beyond themselves,” said Schuyler Bailar, an author who, while attending Harvard University, became the first openly transgender NCAA Men’s Division 1 swimmer. “Books and media also provide easy access for minority and marginalized children to connect with people like themselves, allowing them to feel like they to belong in the world.”
According to the American Library Association, the most challenged books of 2020 — the last year for which there are definitive numbers — was “George,” by Alex Gino, about a transgender girl in fourth grade who everybody sees as a boy named George. The 2015 book was renamed this year and is now titled “Melissa,” because the heroine is a trans girl, not a boy. (Gino announced that he had “made a mistake” with the original title and said it is not “okay” to ever use the old name of someone who has transitioned.)
Caldwell-Stone said that in terms of numbers, book challenges/bans in the past six months have been at their highest since the American Library Association began collecting information in 1990. More than 330 unique cases were reported from Sept. 1 to Nov. 20 more than in any other three-month period. They have continued at a strong pace so far this year, too, she said, but the numbers represent only a fraction of what is really happening. The ALA estimates that between 82 percent and 97 percent of these challenges goes unreported — or, in some cases, she said, are covered up by schools when some information about them becomes known. (About a dozen years ago, a student in Missouri sent Freedom of Information Act requests to every school district in the state and unearthed 83 challenges that year. The ALA had heard about only 12 percent of those, she said.)
This isn’t the first time America has seen large-scale efforts to keep books from the hands of young people. In the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president, advocacy groups such as the Moral Majority, which was founded by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell Sr. and had ties to the Republican Party, made lists of books it found objectionable, many with sexual themes, and prompted local challenges and book bans. The country was less polarized, the battles unfolded more slowly and the messaging was analog; Fox News hadn’t even been founded. But like today, conservatives also pushed for the removal of books about abortion, evolution and politics. A big target at the time was “Forever,” a Judy Blume novel about teenage sexuality. The American Library Association reported that in 1981 saw nearly 1,000 book challenges — with most, but not all, coming from conservative groups.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 delivered its decision in the most important case involving school libraries and the First Amendment, ruling in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School v. Pico that “[l]ocal school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”
People trying to ban books say they aren’t trying to censor material but rather to protect children from seeing things they can’t handle. Although judges have largely ruled against them, the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, has become more conservative in recent years. Meanwhile, Republicans may see the issue as a winner in the midterm elections after Youngkin spent the last part of his campaign talking about parental opposition to “Beloved.”
In fall 2021, as the “parental rights” movement in public schools gained steam and Republican-led states were passing legislation to limit what teachers could introduce about systemic racism, conservative advocacy groups began nationally circulating lists of books they deemed dangerous to young people, Caldwell-Stone said. The group No Left Turn in Education’s bad books list is divided into three sections: critical race theory, anti-police and comprehensive sexuality education. The list includes a book titled “Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea,” which, among other behaviors, describes their mating dance and explains how the male sea horses give birth.
A cascade of activity aimed at limiting book selections in schools and libraries followed. Prosecutors in Campbell County, Wyo., last October weighed — but decided not to file — obscenity charges against librarians who allowed books about LGBTQ people on the shelves. The next month, the library voted to keep three challenged books on the shelves, including “This Book Is Gay” for teens.
Also last October, a key Republican state legislator in Texas called for school districts to review whether they held any of some 850 books he listed as making kids uncomfortable or guilty. Hundreds of titles have been removed since then.
This month in Iowa, legislators went further; some Republican lawmakers introduced a bill that would make it illegal for anyone connected to a K-12 public school or library to spread “material the person knows or reasonably should know, is obscene or harmful to minors.” The penalty could be up to two years in jail and a fine. And in Florida, the state Senate education committee has approved legislation that critics say is aimed at keeping LGBTQ resources off school shelves and supporters say is about providing transparency to parents about what their children are reading.
“It is unusual for legislators to threaten direct action,” said Ada Palmer, associate professor of history at the University of Chicago.
Banning books from libraries and schools can’t prevent children from finding them. That’s why some see the new book banning wave as being aimed not so much at children but at punishing teachers and librarians — and at trying to narrow curriculum and classroom debates about controversial topics. Some also see it as part of a movement by some school reformers to delegitimize public schools.
“The more we look at censorship regimes in the past — from the Inquisition to the USSR [the former Soviet Union] — the clearer it is that the main goal isn’t to silence or destroy books or works that already exist,” Palmer said. “It’s to frighten people and discourage them from reading, buying and creating similar works in future,” she argues, pointing out that Galileo’s trial “frightened Descartes into withdrawing a radical treatise he was about to publish and editing it to make it much more orthodox.”
In late January, a Tennessee school board voted to ban “Maus,” a graphic novel in which the author relates how his father survived the Holocaust. The board’s discussion mentioned, among other things, rough language and a nude drawing of a woman, according to a meeting transcript. One board member, Tony Allman, said: “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff, it is not wise or healthy.”
James Blasingame, an expert on young adult literature at Arizona State University, said that the disturbing nature of “Maus” is exactly what students should learn about the Holocaust — and that students are cheated from learning about the world when books like this are banned.
“It is a disturbing and shameful event in the history of the human race, and any book that purports to tell accurately what happened must also be disturbing,” he said.
As the number of challenges and bans rises, so, too, does resistance from parents and students and school board members.
Black students in Texas and other states are forming groups to read books on racism that others seek to ban. An organization of suburban mothers who partnered with other groups launched a campaign called “Book Ban Busters,” offering resources and support to fight books bans. Its website includes a map of places where book challenges have occurred, showing them in most states.
In January, an effort in the Kutztown Area School District in Pennsylvania to keep a book called “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe out of the high school library was defeated when the school board voted 5-4 in favor of including it.
In her speech to the North Penn school board, Flannery referenced — and rejected — criticism that book banners were “snowflakes,” people who have a hard time dealing with opinions they don’t agree with. But proponents may open themselves up to charges of hypocrisy. Moms for Liberty favors “parental choice,” but not for parents who want to expose children to the ideas in these books.
More broadly, conservatives have lamented what they see as “cancel culture” on the left, such as in March , when the publisher of the famed Dr. Seuss books announced that six titles with racist imagery would stop being printed. “The cancel culture is canceling Dr. Seuss,” Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade said. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson went further, saying that “if we lose this battle” to preserve the Seuss books, “America is lost.” But conservatives don’t seem to mind other books being canceled from schools and libraries.
Meanwhile, the argument is playing out in classrooms. In November, eighth-grade reading teacher Alecia Feckers resigned from the Charles City Community Schools district after being put on administrative leave for reading Bailar’s short story “Catch, Pull, Drive” from the “Fresh Ink” anthology to her students.
The short story — not on the approved list of resources for the subject, social issues — reflects experiences of its author, who was recruited at Harvard to play on the women’s swim team but transitioned and swam on the men’s team.
After some parents complained, Feckers was investigated by the district. She decided to resign because, she said in an email, she felt it was her only option: “I didn’t think I could stay there when they didn’t support me or have my back.”
A previous version of this story misspelled Deborah Caldwell-Stone's name.